A new study illuminates the difficulties Korean-American women confront when acknowledging their sexual identity. A woman’s “coming out” as a lesbian may be complicated by the Confucian or conservative Christian values of her parents and likely depends on her family’s immigration experience and place of residence.
The University of Illinois study is published in the Journal of GLBT Family Studies.
“Many Korean-American families live in close-knit ethnic enclaves, and conservative Christian churches are a strong support for those families. The churches tend to uphold certain Confucian values that originated in Korea, especially a strong devotion to parents and an emphasis on being a good son or daughter, which makes it difficult for children to be open about their sexuality,” said Ramona Oswald, a U of I associate professor of family studies.
Oswald said the study will aid in designing culturally competent supports for Korean-American lesbians and their families. “But we wouldn’t have had access to this information had it not been for master’s degree candidate Grace Chung, who gained the trust of the participants,” she said.
Chung interviewed 25 Korean-American lesbians living in the United States about their experiences and attempted to determine if the length of time the participants or their families had been in the U.S. influenced whether the daughters were closeted or open about their sexual identity. The study became her master’s thesis.
Chung found that the pressure to remain closeted in order to be a good daughter was very real, especially for women who immigrated as children with their parents (referred to in the study as the 1.5 generation).
“In Korean culture, everything is centered around elders and showing respect. Nobody wants to break their parents’ hearts,” said one study participant.
“And Koreatown is so narrow,” said another. “Everyone knows everyone else through their personal networks.”
One participant’s parents had been censured by their church when she came out as a lesbian. “They actually sat my parents down and stripped them of their roles; my mother wasn’t allowed to play organ anymore, my father was stripped of his title as elder, and my little brother wasn’t allowed to play drums in the praise band.
“They lost their extended family, they lost all of their friends, they lost everything except their jobs,” she said.
Another woman was pained to observe her parents’ downward mobility from white-collar occupations in Korea to blue-collar work in the United States and wanted to protect them from further sadness.
“My dad always worked hard in Korea, and I just thought, ‘Oh, well, I guess he works hard.’ But, when I came here and actually saw how he worked, I could really feel it in my heart. And, for my mom, you know, in Korea, women don’t work like that. The fact that my mom works here hurts me so much. And the kind of work they do here is totally different from Korea,” she said.
But the study also found important diversity among the 25 women, with international students leading double lives in the U.S., and second-generation, more “Americanized” daughters more likely to be out and honest about their sexual identity.
“All but one of the international students was ‘out’ in the U.S. because they were not putting their parents’ name or face at risk,” said Oswald.
“And second-generation women were far more likely to challenge their Korean socialization as obedient daughters, prioritizing the more American virtues of openness and honesty. For them, being out and open was the right thing to do, and even if it caused family conflict, they hoped that eventually their disclosure would strengthen family ties,” she added.
Because many lesbian women of the1.5 generation are closeted and difficult to reach, Oswald and Chung want to develop Korean-language materials that will provide support for lesbians and information for their families in the context of more general issues of family life and immigration.
“Grace has also talked to the 1.5 women about getting support online because it’s anonymous,” said Oswald.
“Being out and proud may not be the best thing for these women because they want to continue to belong to their communities,” said Oswald. “Their challenge is how to reduce the isolation they feel and how to meet the needs they have without violating the relationships they hold dear.”